My Racist Company Fires Minorities. What Can I Do About It?

Last Updated Mar 22, 2010 6:16 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, I work for a small family business where HR functions are handled by accounting and the department manager. I manage a very small workforce that contributes a great deal to the bottom line. I have recently conducted interviews for a position that is soon to be available. The problem is that the best candidate is a minority, and the owners of the business are racist. They are not overtly racist, they just put the microscope on every minority I hire, especially minority women. My direct supervisor is not a member of the family, but everyone else above me is. I feel that I would not be helping this candidate to hire her since I can guarantee that I will be asked to terminate her before her probationary period ends for "unsatisfactory performance." If I do not hire because my higher ups are racist, then am I guilty of discrimination? I have decided to hire the most qualified person, who is a minority, but I can count the calender days until I am instructed to terminate. What do I do? Well, this is a sticky situation, isn't it? If the economy were humming along at full speed, I'd tell you to forget about these losers you work for and find a new job. Employers who don't treat their employees fairly soon end up without any good employees, because the good ones leave. That will happen to these people eventually, but in a bad economy, it's easier to keep people who normally wouldn't put up with you. However, I would start looking for a new job anyway because this isn't a place you want to be associated with.

But for the here and now, you need to take control of the situation. Your department contributes to the bottom line. That means other people are dependent upon your work for their paychecks. That gives you some leverage. Let's use it.

First, you need to have clear, objective, quantitative measures for success. This is a critical point. It needs to be established, in writing, what is expected of the new hire. Personally, I'm a fan of SMART objectives. These are objectives that are:

S--Specific M--Measurable A--Achievable R--Relevant T--Time Frame

Once you've written these up, get them approved by your boss and (to be safe) your boss's boss, who is part of the racist family. You need to have their approvals in writing, so that when the time comes you can effectively defend your new hire. Be careful with the SMART objectives: Make sure they're what you want to live and die by, because you'll have to do just that.

With the SMART job objectives in hand, go ahead and make an offer to your best candidate. Go over the details with her and explain that in the past many people have been terminated during the probationary period. Explain that these objectives are new, that they are designed to make sure everyone is on the same page, but again, that other people have been terminated during the probationary period. (And not that you asked, but I really dislike probationary periods. Having a probationary period says, "There will become a time in which you are no longer an at-will employee," but we'll deal with that some time in the distant future.)

To be fair to the candidate, you need to let her know that there is a possibility she'll be terminated. This is especially important if she's leaving another job. Explain that this is not going to be an easy job and that the family sometimes has a hard time accepting outsiders.

Then bring the candidate on board and work with her to make sure she meets the SMART objectives. If the powers that be want to fire her, you'll have solid evidence in your little hand that she has met all of the objectives. When they say, "But it's the probationary period, we can fire anyone at any time," you can say, "Yes, that's true, but this function is critical for the bottom line of the company. If I terminate someone who is clearly meeting the objectives we all agreed on, it's going to look like racial or gender discrimination. If she sues, we'll most likely lose, because how would we defend ourselves? Terminating her would be a poor business move, since she is meeting all the objectives."

Using the "we" form instead of "you" will help soften the blow that you're telling these people they're racist idiots. In fact, they probably won't pick up on it. All you're saying is that it "looks" like discrimination. If they still insist that she be terminated, this is where you need to draw your line in the sand. You need to refuse to terminate the person.

If the family wants to terminate, fine. But, don't you dare be the one who delivers the news. Why? Because often a defense in discrimination lawsuits is that the company can't possibly be racist/sexist/ageist/whateverist because the same person who hired did the firing. The argument is that if there were a problem with illegal discrimination, the person never would have been hired in the first place. Don't give them the opportunity to hide behind you.

I realize that this opens you up for termination. This stinks. But remember, you're a strong contributor to the bottom line. Remind them of that. Stand firm. Don't give in to the temptation to do something wrong to preserve yourself. Sometimes, you've just got to do what's right.

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    Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate Human Resources. She's hired, fired, and analyzed the numbers for several major companies. She founded the Carnival of HR, a bi-weekly gathering of HR blogs, and her writings have been used in HR certification and management training courses across the country.